Gospel Reflection For Sunday 4th November 2023 31st Sunday Ordinary Time – by Fr Brian Maher OMI
The Gospel today contains, I think, an insight into a quality of Jesus we can too easily overlook.
When we list the qualities and virtues of Jesus, we rarely include it.
When we examine our conscience we equally rarely include it as a possible place of sin.
It is a quality that says to us: “I made you in my image and likeness. Go out into your world searching for my ‘image and likeness’ and rejoicing when you find it.
You may be surprised where you find my image and likeness residing, but do not fear to acknowledge it and its value.
Where it is missing, no matter where that is, challenge its loss with assurance and strength.
Like the treasure buried in the field, this is a quality which can elude us very easily. It is also a quality which, when found and kept safe, will transform our lives.
Join me in reflecting on this week’s Gospel.
Gospel Reflection for Sunday November 4th 2023 | 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus was, during his life, a shrewd observer of people and events. Again and again, in the stories he tells, we notice how he uses the tiny details of a scene – colours, sounds, movement – to bring his hearers to the heart of the action.
In the story of the ‘Pharisee and the Tax Collector’, for example, we see how Jesus, amid all the comings and goings of the Temple, notices the Tax Collector at the back, bowing his head and striking his breast in humble recognition of his sinfulness, or again in the story of the ‘Widow’s Mite’ we see Jesus observing the woman adding her single coin, “all she had” to the Temple collection.
These are the tiny details in a scene that many people do not notice, yet it is precisely in these tiny moments that Jesus points us to the qualities which really matter in our lives – humility, generosity, sacrifice, and thoughtfulness.
Today’s Gospel is especially rich in colour and activity. On the surface, Jesus appears to take aim at his old foes, the Scribes and Pharisees, and it is true, that he does point out the hypocrisy and pride he sees in their actions. Indeed, in this Gospel he seems particularly angry with them, finding quite a list of faults to level at them. The image of loading heavy burdens onto the shoulders of others, while not lifting a finger to help themselves is very powerful. It seems that even the clothes they wear and the way others talk to them condemn them.
Is it any wonder that the Scribes, Pharisees and others who disliked the message of Jesus were careful about where and how they challenged him. His powers of observation and attention to detail gave him the ammunition he needed to see through and thwart their plans to trap or ridicule him.
However, at the very start of the Gospel, we notice something else that I think is far more important than it might appear at first glance. Even as Jesus castigates the Scribes and Pharisees for their pride and hypocrisy, he takes time to call attention to those aspects of their role as Religious Leaders which should be respected.
It would seem that Jesus had the wit and skill to take on and argue with the powerful Pharisees and Scribes whenever they wished to engage him. He certainly did not fear them. It would have been so easy for him to heap criticism and scorn on them, making them a laughing stock in the eyes of the people, and given how they treated him it must have been tempting to do so. But no, Jesus calls attention to their learning and knowledge, going so far as to say that “you must do what they tell you and listen to what they say…”
There is a quality here, a characteristic we find again and again in the person of Jesus that we can easily overlook, and do so at our peril. The quality I refer to is ‘balance’. Without it we constantly live in a world of extremes, vacillating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘love’ and ‘hate’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, based only on what we notice at any one time.
If we wish to be followers of Jesus, if we wish to travel our road of life in the same way that Jesus travelled his, then we must constantly look for ‘balance’ in everything we say, do and even think. The authority with which Jesus spoke, an authority we were told was “not like that of the scribes and Pharisees” was founded, I believe, on the ‘balance’ Jesus managed to maintain in all aspects of his life.
Jesus did not pick sides. Indeed, it seems to me that he consciously opted not to do so. A good example of this was found in the Gospel a few weeks ago when the Pharisees asked him whether they should pay taxes to Rome or to the Temple. Their aim was simple; to trap him into taking sides, thereby alienating one side or the other. As we know, Jesus used a simple coin to say to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus chose the balanced path.
However, we must be careful. Too easily taking a ‘balanced position’ is seen as a weakness. We often call it ‘choosing the path of least resistance’ or choosing the ‘easy way out’. However, even a cursory look at the life of Jesus shows us that this is not what he ever did. For Jesus ‘balance’ meant recognising at a deep personal level that every person is created in the ‘image and likeness of God’.
When Jesus interacts with the Scribes and Pharisees when he interacts with his friends and followers when he interacts with Jews and Samaritans, he knows, deep within his heart, that every single one of them, friend and foe alike, is ‘made in God’s image and likeness’, and he knows with absolute confidence that within every living person there is both good and bad.
As he observes what is happening around him, he is looking for, wanting to find, that image of God. Wherever he sees it he can acknowledge and praise it, regardless of who possesses it. Where he finds it overshadowed by darkness he can condemn and criticise it.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus managed to spend time with lepers and prostitutes, yet was equally comfortable dining with wealthy tax collectors? Or wonder how he could be so scathing about the Pharisees yet we know that several of them were friends and followers?
Are these examples of double standards active in Jesus’ life, or do they hint at a weakness in leadership, an inability to take a stand one way or the other?
Yet, nowhere in Jesus’ life, including his willingness to choose death rather than renege on his message, do we find a weakness, cowardice, or an inability to take a stand for what is good and true when that is necessary.
It has to be that it was the great quality of ‘balance’ that enabled Jesus to relate to rich and poor, virtuous and sinful, Jew and Samaritan, Pharisee and tax collector, without ever needing to take sides.
Balance is, I think, a quality of Jesus we too often overlook. When we list the qualities of Jesus we admire most, things like forgiveness, compassion, and reaching out to the poor, will be on most people’s lists. But how often do we rank ‘balance’ as key to his life and mission?
Or when we examine our conscience, acknowledging our weaknesses and sinfulness, we will note our pride, our anger, our hypocrisy, our jealousy, and we will recognise how they harm our relationship with God and with others, but how often do we notice our lack of balance in word and deed and the damage it does to ourselves and our relationships.
Those who wish to spread fear and division will, no doubt, say that seeking ‘balance’ in a situation is just naïve and wishful thinking. If so then Christianity is naïve and Jesus a deluded fool. But I do not think so. Everything Jesus said and did, culminating in his death and resurrection, pointed to a Kingdom of hope and peace, joy and confidence; a Kingdom which had come among us in the person of Jesus and which would be with us always, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Kingdom is founded on the quality of ‘balance’.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at email@example.com
|Gospel Sunday November 4th 2023
|Matthew 23:1-12 ©
They do not practise what they preach
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